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NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. consumer sentiment was scaled back slightly in the latter half of March but was still stronger than February on optimism about jobs and finances together with low inflation, a private survey released on Friday showed.
The University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers said its consumer sentiment index recorded a final reading of 96.9 for March, down from a preliminary reading of 97.6 earlier in the month but higher than February's final reading of 96.3.
Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast the final March figure to match the preliminary one.
"The continued strength in consumer sentiment has been due to optimistic views on three critical components: higher incomes and wealth, more favorable job prospects, and low inflation expectations," the survey's chief economist Richard Curtin said in a statement.
In January, the university's consumer sentiment gauge reached 98.5, the highest since January 2004.
There is disparity on the outlook about the economy based on political party affiliation, he noted.
Republicans surveyed expected robust growth, while Democrats surveyed expected an imminent recession, Curtin said.
"Overall, the data indicate both rising optimism as well as rising uncertainty due to the partisan divide," he said.
The survey's measure on current conditions ended at 113.2 in March, down from a preliminary reading of 114.5 which was the highest since November 2000. It was higher than February's final figure of 111.5.
The component on consumers expectations finished at 86.5, below the preliminary reading of 86.7 and unchanged from the February's final figure.
Consumers' inflation outlook bounced back from earlier March but was weaker than a month ago.
The survey's one-year inflation measure was 2.5 percent, up from the preliminary reading of 2.4 percent but down from the final February figure of 2.7 percent.
The five-year inflation gauge was 2.4 percent, up from a preliminary reading of 2.2 percent but lower than the final February figure of 2.5 percent.
Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama